Christopher Murphy’s road to the theater is a perfect combination of nature and nurture. He was a young boy when his parents divorced, but when that required his mother to return to the workforce, his maternal grandmother insisted he stay with her and his grandfather rather than go to a babysitter. That provided the imaginative only child with not only the opportunity to perform but the audience.“I fell in love with performing and acting for the same reason a lot of people do,” said Murphy. “It was a way to escape and amuse myself. And I would start putting on little plays for my parents and grandparents. I would also run a little restaurant out of my grandmother’s kitchen, passing out handmade menus.”
Murphy admits that in his family, his future in the theater makes him an anomaly; that doesn’t mean he didn’t inherit some of his tendencies from his relatives.
“My maternal grandfather was a great storyteller, a great living room entertainer. He was funny and charming, and I idolized him. That was really my first exposure to a great character, which is why I was always attracted to those character parts. I got to grow up watching those classic sitcoms of that era like Barney Miller which featured great character actors. I was totally enamored with those TV characters.”
Murphy had already started dabbling in school productions when in seventh grade, his parents unwittingly sealed his future by taking him to a touring production of My Fair Lady at the Embassy Theatre. The production starred Noel Harrison in the role his father Rex had made famous, and that one performance proved life-altering.
“That experience, with a character actor in the lead rather than a dashing leading man, that’s when I literally said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I had already done shows, but I never entertained the idea in my head as something I wanted to do. It never entered my head as something that I could do.”
Up to that time, Murphy was engaged in a multitude of artistic endeavors including visual arts and music, playing the cello for a time. But he became focused now on theater exclusively, taking every opportunity at his school, Blackhawk, to learn whatever he could. By high school his interests began to take a slightly different turn.
“I found by the end of high school that as much as I loved acting, directing was my primary passion. Maybe it’s because I’m a total control freak and don’t like being a hired hand and putting my fate in other people’s hands.”
Years later the grandmother he so treasured, who died November of last year, seemed to confirm his preference providing him with a lovely review of his work.
“She told me, ‘When I see a show where you are acting, I see you play one part. But when I see a show that you direct, I see you playing all the parts.”
Beyond the early support of his parents, Murphy also found encouragement from his Blackhawk teacher Elaine Nickell, and years later he repaid that debt by working for her as the drama director, which allowed him to direct young actors.
“It meant so much to me that I was able to give to other people the gift that she had given me.”
Murphy continues to pass that gift along as assistant director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre. Although he continues to appear on stage and direct adult casts, working often with Arena Dinner Theatre and First Presbyterian Theater, his focus continues to be the teaching and development of young talent. A part of the faculty for several years, he began working for Youtheatre full-time a few years ago. Along the way he has directed several of the company’s regular season productions. A recent one ranks high on Murphy’s list of favorite directorial experiences.
“I just had the best time doing A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was so pleased with that. It was something that I had loved my whole life. It was great watching the kids doing the show and to see audiences seeing it in a whole new way.”
Murphy has another opportunity to bring a well-known classic to life in May when he directs Pinocchio, the final show of the season and part of the annual Fairy Tale Fest.
“That’s very similar to Charlie Brown in that people have a preconceived notion about what it’s going to be. And the challenge is to give them what they want while hopefully bringing something new to it. This will be the first Youtheatre show I’ve directed at the Arts United Center in a few years, so it’s a great opportunity to bring size and more technical aspects to the show.”
Murphy also gets to pursue some more adult material, having been able to indulge his love of Stephen Sondheim thanks to Arena Dinner Theatre. In recent years that has led to directing Company, Assassins and this June, A Little Night Music. He hopes to continue with that series, and he wouldn’t mind another crack at the show that started it all for him.
“I’ve been in My Fair Lady two-and-a-half times,” he said. “I played Higgins after high school, played Pickering in a production at the Civic, and through Gregory Stieber, I did a concert production of it with the Virginia State Symphony where I sang the Doolittle songs. So I’ve played all three main roles, but I wouldn’t mind another go or two at that.”
While he enjoys those outside endeavors, it is clearly Fort Wayne Youtheatre that had his heart. It is there where he has really made a mark with generations of creative kids who are all grateful for the same encouragement he received as he was finding his path in the theatre.
“I’m like everyone else and thought about whether I wanted to go to New York, try to get something going there. But I love Fort Wayne, love this whole artistic community because it’s so rich and vibrant. And even if I had gone on to become a wildly successful actor, I would never have gotten the same satisfaction that I do from directing and teaching these young people.”